By Douglas Hamilton
JERUSALEM, March 19 (Reuters) - Abundant water from the Red Sea could replenish the shrinking Dead Sea if Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians decide to commission a tunnel north through the Jordanian desert from the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance project would supply the biggest desalination plant in the world, running on its own hydro-electric power and providing Jordan with enough water for the next 40-50 years. Israel and the Palestinian West Bank would also benefit.
A decision on whether to go ahead could come by the end of next year and the likely cost would be in the region of 7 billion dollars.
"The idea of linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea was first suggested by a British military engineer in the 1880s. That was for hydro-power. But the drivers today are water supply and saving the Dead Sea," said engineer David Meehan , who leads the study team for French consultants Coyne et Bellier.
"Technically and engineering-wise it was always going to be feasible," he told Reuters. "But there are some major issues that could determine its feasibility ultimately."
Three potential systems are being examined: a buried pipeline, a low-level tunnel all the way, and a higher-level tunnel-and-canal system.
Two new feasibility studies are being commissioned by the World Bank this month, acting for the "beneficiary parties", Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
If a tunnel is chosen, it would be about 7-8 metres in diameter. Red Sea water would take about 3-4 days to flow 168 km (105 miles), relying entirely on gravity and dropping some 400 metres below sea level, to the lowest point on earth, where the Dead Sea is rapidly retreating.
Some estimates say it could more or less dry up in 50 years if no action is taken. Its level is falling by about one metre (three feet) per year due to a sharp decrease in inflow from the Jordan and other rivers whose waters now irrigate fields and to Dead Sea chemical industry use by Israel and Jordan.
"The level has fallen from 394 meters below sea level in the 1960s to 420 meters below sea level as of mid-2007," said the World Bank. The water surface area is down by a third, from 950 square kilometers to 637 -- about the size of Lake Geneva.
The World Bank said arresting the decline to avert an environmental calamity, and slowly topping up the sea, is the main priority.
"For Jordan it is a water-supply project," said Meehan. "While for Israel it has perhaps as much to do with regional politics. For them, desalinating Mediterranean water is much more practical."
Nearly half of the 2 billion cubic metres of water flowing north each year through the system would be desalinated and made potable. The brine would go into the Dead Sea, whose waters are 10 times more saline than the ocean.
The tunnel would be on Jordanian territory, following the line of the border with Israel. Jordan and Egypt, Israel’s next-door neighbour in the Gulf of Aqaba, are the only two Arab countries which have full relations with the Jewish state, and the project in an earlier incarnation was quickly dubbed the "peace canal".
Meehan, who played an important role in the construction of Libya’s "great, man-made river project" and other major infrastructure developments, said he "can’t see the project being commissioned before 2020". But its feasibility could be established in a year to 18 months.
The main concerns are the effects on marine life in the Gulf of Aqaba of the extraction of such large volumes of water, the effects of that water mixing with the Dead Sea, and the funding of the project, said Meehan.
In addition, Israel has concerns about potential leakage polluting valuable freshwater aquifers in a desert region where it has developed world-leading techniques for cultivation, and "environmentalists don’t like the idea of canals which cut off wildlife migration".
The Palestinians have not even asked formally for a share of the desalinated water, he said, possibly because they do not want to prejudice their existing claims to mountain aquifers" supplying the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley.
"None of these issues can be separated from politics," he said, although both Jordan and Israel say they could go it alone. But that could involve a dispute in international law and funding would become scarce.
TURNING WHITE, THEN GREEN?
The World Bank this month called for tenders on two additional studies to assess the main environmental, and oceanographic issues.
"The outcome of mixing of these two water bodies over a time scale of decades is unknown and is difficult to model and predict," noted the bank’s March 13 draft study preamble.
"Clearly, the Dead Sea will change its composition and characteristics as they are known today or were in the past if it receives large volumes of water from the Red Sea."
Some environmentalist critics warn that tampering with nature on such an unprecedented scale could bring disaster: the Dead Sea mighty turn white as gypsum sediment precipitates, then green as microbial blooms flourish.
The studies should determine if these fears are justified. They will also assess the "do nothing" option, modelling the Dead Sea of 2060.
At a March 5 meeting in the sleepy Israeli Dead Sea resort of Ein Gedi, the beneficiary countries stated their continued support for the project "and urged that it continue to be implemented on an accelerated basis".
Meehan said he had encountered a number of amusing suspicions in his meetings with locals along the projected routes, including a Jordanian who wondered if it was an Israeli plot to realise a Talmudic prophecy that "one day fish will swim in the Dead Sea".
At present, there are only microbial forms of life in the famously buoyant waters, where visitors taking a dip can keep their newspapers intact as they read in the sun and float, high and dry.
The Scottish-born engineer said screening and filtration would remove marine life at the Gulf of Aqaba entry to the system, and treatment would remove tiny microbes at the desalination end, so the water entering the Dead Sea would be sterile.
(Editing by Peter Millership)